On Christmas eve 1994, Air France flight 8969 was hijacked at Houari Boumedienne Airport in Algiers, by armed Algerian Islamic terrorists from the GIA, with (revealed afterwards) the intent of crashing it into the Eifel tower. However, the hijacking was premature and the plane never left the tarmac, but remained in a state of siege for two days until it did eventually take off. After being persuaded to land in Marseille to address the world’s media with their demands, it was met by a French team from the GIGN, who successfully ended the siege. These events shocked the world, and form the real life basis for The Assault.
The timing of The Assault is very interesting. The image of a hijacked plane, potentially with the idea of crashing it into a major landmark, immediately evokes the images of 9/11. Anytime in the last decade this film would have been deeply scrutinized for those similarities, even if it is based on real life events, but it has seemingly slipped under the radar, and it certainly doesn’t seem like the choice to release this after the tenth anniversary of 9/11 was an unconscious decision.
Nevertheless, the Assault is a very good film. It is a taut thriller, with two very distinct threads that intertwine throughout, and in a way that chooses not to eschew the socio-political context of the situation between France and Algeria in 1994 (or indeed previous to that) but to have that as a separate but very much related storyline throughout is a real positive for The Assault, as it really rams home to larger consequences of the diplomatic situation taking place at the time, and just how significant the ramifications of mishandling the situation could have potentially been. This adds huge amounts of drama to a plot that could easily have been a flat rehash of a well worn action subgenre.
Visually, The Assault is distinctly French. It has been shot through a grey filter to give it a gloomy hue, and looks incredibly gritty. There are long sweeping panoramic views, but always with urban areas in the forefront, and never glamorising or sensationalising the settings it makes use of. The action is also incredibly well shot, and it is a credit to Leclercq that he has managed to capture the sheer chaos of the situation when the GIGN do finally make their move, but does so in such a way that it is not disjointing or disorientating for the audience.
On the negative side of things, perhaps the story is somewhat hamstrung by the constraints of following real life events, and during the first 20 minutes the film plods somewhat, and takes a bit of time to get going. Also, the subplot involving Thierry P and his relationship with his wife seems somewhat unnecessary, and perhaps a little bit clichéd, which stands out like a sore thumb in a film that works incredibly hard to avoid the trappings of formulaic action/hijacking films.
The Assault is a very good film, with excellent and convincing performances by its cast, and a genuinely engrossing plot, buoyed by its basis in real life, and it’s refusal to push the audience towards specifically sympathising with either the GIGN or the terrorists. The Assault presents a very balanced view of the incidents of Christmas 1994, but without compromising on it’s dramatic worth, or it’s action. A taut, tense political action thriller with real bite.
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